American Parents' Attitudes and Beliefs About Corporal Punishment

An Integrative Literature Review

Ellen M. Chiocca, MSN, CPNP, RNC-NIC


J Pediatr Health Care. 2017;31(3):372-383. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Research on American parents' beliefs about the use of corporal punishment (CP) shows widespread approval of this child-rearing practice. This review integrated 25 research articles to gain a better understanding of what American parents believe about the use of CP as a method of child-rearing, where they get their information about CP, and if American parents' beliefs about CP translate to the actual use of CP. The results showed that the main factors that influence a parent's endorsement of CP is the belief that CP is normative and expected when raising a child; is a necessary part of parenting, even for infants; and that certain stressors involving interactions between the parent, child, and environment can elicit the use of CP. Further research is needed to determine what methods are effective in changing parents' attitudes and beliefs about the use of CP.


The social acceptability of corporal punishment (CP) as a method of child-rearing is widespread in the United States (Child Trends, 2015). A nationally representative survey conducted in 2014 showed that 76% of men and 65% of women ages 18 to 65 years agreed that a child sometimes needs a "good hard spanking" (Child Trends, 2015, p. 2). Straus defines CP as "the use of physical force with the intention of causing the child to experience pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correction or control of the child's behavior" (Straus, 2001, p. 4). In addition to most American adults approving of CP, most actually use it to correct their children's behavior. Over 90% of American parents report having used CP at least once, and 40% to 70% report having used CP in the past 6 months (Straus, 2010).

A significant body of research has shown that CP is not only ineffective (Durrant & Ensom, 2012;Gershoff, 2013; Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016; Hineline & Rosales-Ruiz, 2012) but harmful (Afifi, Brownridge, Cox, & Sareen, 2006; Gershoff, 2002, 2010, 2013; Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016; Grogan-Kaylor, 2004). In a landmark meta-analysis of 88 studies on the effects of CP, Gershoff (2002) documented 11 negative outcomes associated with CP. Gershoff's analysis showed a link between CP and increased child aggression; decreased moral internalization; increased delinquent, criminal, and antisocial behavior; decreased quality of parent–child relationship; increased internalizing and externalizing behaviors in children; and increased risk of family violence in adulthood. Subsequent research studies have reinforced the findings that CP is associated with antisocial behavior (Grogan-Kaylor, 2004); increased child aggression (Taylor, Manganello, Lee, & Rice, 2010; Thompson et al., 2017); and increased risk of major depression, alcohol abuse or dependence, and externalizing problems in adulthood (Afifi et al., 2006). A more recent meta-analysis (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016) of 75 studies largely confirms the previous meta-analytic findings, identifying 17 separate detrimental child outcomes associated with the use of CP. These findings include immediate defiance, low moral internalization, aggression and antisocial behavior, increased internalizing and externalizing behaviors, mental health problems including alcohol and substance abuse, and low self-esteem. Other negative outcomes include impaired cognitive ability, decreased self-regulation, negative parent–child relationships, and increased risk for physical injury and abuse. The negative effects of CP continue beyond childhood, with an increased risk for experiencing mental health issues in adulthood including antisocial behaviors, alcohol, or substance abuse. This research also showed that children who have been hit are more likely to support the use of CP as adults (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016).

CP, when used in anger, often leads to physical injury even if the adult had no intent to harm the child (Clement & Chamberland, 2008; Gershoff, 2010; Jackson et al., 1999; Knox, 2010; Oburu & Palmerus, 2003). Given the negative effects of CP, coupled with the broad approval of CP among American parents, this integrative literature review was undertaken to answer three questions: (a) What is the state of interdisciplinary knowledge related to American parents' attitudes and beliefs about the CP of children? (b) Where do American parents they get the information on which they base their beliefs? and (c) Do these beliefs translate to the actual use of CP?